Hedges and Fences (Part 2)

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Creating A Privacy Barrier That Won’t Take Over Your Yard

Last week, we looked at placing a chain-link fence around your property. This time, we’re going to add some sound-deadening and privacy to our lot by planting a hedge in front.

But maybe you have neighbors who have already planted thick hedges and wonder why you should go to the trouble. Neighbors and their treatment of their hedges can and do change. The original westside neighbors in the rented duplex kept their privet hedge trimmed to 3 feet. Yes, you read right: 36 inches. Soon after we installed the fence and yews, the new neighbors moved in. They let the hedge go. Every few years, it gets hacked back from 12 feet to four feet in height, and it loses a lot of thickness as well.

The moral is: Don’t rely on your neighbor’s hedges for the screening you want. Enjoy them as bonus barriers, but don’t count on it.

Homeowners can be divided into two parts: those who are gardeners and those who are not. The gardeners, used to thinking in terms of seasons, understand that the work performed now will pay back dividends over the long haul.

Many homeowners could look at the bundle of four-foot yew sticks and wonder “what’s the point”? They want a yew hedge today!

This is where a bit of faith needs to be acquired. Yes, it will take years before you see results, but they will come and it will be spectacular. That row of four-foot sticks planted in a row against the back fence will grow into a thick hedge that will block the neighbors’ views (and that spotlight one insists on keeping lit 24/7).

So to paraphrase “Field of Dreams”: if you plant it, it will come.

Shopping and Planting

So, spend some time studying up on shrubs and ask lots of questions at the nursery. A mail-order catalog like Musser Forests (highly recommended; fabulous selection and good prices) is a terrific resource. It will tell you the approximate mature height and spread of each plant and give you an idea of its shape. I really like Hicksii yews (taxus) as this particular variant grows as a column about 3 to 4 feet in diameter and 10 to 15 feet tall at maturity. A row of Hicksii 3 foot on center grows into a dark green wall that will stop below most power lines. Yew tolerates pruning very well, so if it has to be topped, it won’t be a problem.

We have had our yews in place for nearly a decade, and we have never had to prune them.

A word on yews: they come in every shrub shape and size there is: whether you want meatballs, cones, pillars or chocolate drops, there is a yew that will grow in the shape you need it to be. Do your homework up front, buy the correct plants and you should have very little pruning in your future.

But, you may ask, if yews are so great, why do I see all this privet everywhere? It’s widely used in Europe, particularly in aristocratic homes, and the tradition for using it carried over across the pond. It’s also incredibly easy to use: fast-growing, long-lived, can endure the most severe pruning, and it creates a formidable privacy barrier.

But privet also comes two big disadvantages for homeowners. What the aristocrats won’t tell you is that it requires regular pruning. Easy to do when you have a full-time gardening staff, not when you’re a two-income couple with small children. Privet also wants to mature to a height of 30 or 40 feet with a 15- to 20-foot spread. If you don’t want your privet hedge to be this big, you must prune regularly, or, depending on the enthusiasm and policy of your local power company, watch them hack it back and present you with the bill.

Not seen: Homeowner getting back surgery.

Not seen: Homeowner getting back surgery.

As a result, I never recommend privet to anyone who doesn’t want to get out the pruning equipment four to six times a year. Particularly when there are so many alternatives around that prevent this.

So choose your hedge by the mature height and spread. If you don’t want to prune, don’t plant something that will grow to 50 feet tall. If you want a 4-foot-tall hedge, choose plants that don’t grow taller than four feet! Plants, being living things, are perfectly capable of ignoring what the catalog says they will do. But named varieties of shrubs from a reputable company like Musser Forests will come pretty close, so long as your soil is good, your light levels are adequate, and you take care of them. If you do these things wrong, the expensive shrubs you planted will die. The nursery will provide planting and care instructions. Follow them to the letter.

Make Room for Shrubbery

So, study catalogs and choose your shrubs. Any shrub that grows as a column or pillar will make a very nice wall or hedge without too much fuss or elbow room. Shrubs that want to spread out can also make a hedge but they either need lots of room or you will have to prune.

You can mix your hedge plants as well. Alternate thuja and taxus for a vertical striped effect. Mix tall and short shrubs for an undulating line. A 10- or 15-foot wide planting strip inside the fence will create loads of room for a hedgerow. A hedgerow will give you lots of privacy, amazing wildlife habitat, even fruit and nut production depending on the shrub and small tree choice. This will also make your yard area that much smaller. Your planting zone, personal tastes, and budget are what matter.

You don’t have to use evergreens either. You can grow a hedge by lining up tall ornamental grass, clumping bamboo (which can spread if not watched), even columnar apple trees.

The advantage of evergreen hedges is they provide a year-round living wall. Plant so the shrubs have some space to grow between them and the chain-link fence. Otherwise, your cedars and yews will grow right up to the chain-link and then through it. If needed, you can shear them to the fence on the outside edge. The combination of an eight-foot-tall wall of yews growing into a high chain-link fence is hard to see through and hard to climb through.

Next Week: How to Create Your Own Little Sissinghurst